Hill farmers have been urged to consider diversifying their operations by planting woodland after new figures showed a significant increase in the relative benefits of forestry to farming in the Southern Uplands of Scotland. An updated version of a report by SAC Consulting, covering 20,000 hectares (around 50,000 acres) in the Eskdalemuir area of Dumfries & Galloway, indicated that once established, productive conifer forestry is delivering an annual surplus of more than £4 million - up from just under £3m from the original study, based on figures from 2011 and 2012. By comparison, the new figures indicate that if hill farming continued on the same area of land, a loss of £930,000 would be expected before subsidy, more than double the deficit of £438,000 recorded in the earlier report. Stuart Goodall, Chief Executive of Confor: Promoting forestry and wood, which commissioned the report, said: “This updated research by SAC Consulting reinforces and enhances the initial findings that productive softwood forestry is a very significant economic activity in rural Scotland – and a real economic opportunity for Scotland’s sheep farmers. It provides an opportunity for farmers to successfully diversify their businesses, deliver more for the environment, create shelter belts for livestock and reduce their reliance on public subsidy in the longer term.” The report also showed that annual output per hectare is £549.61 before subsidy for forestry (up from £495.15 in the initial study) compared to £117.33 for upland sheep farming (£196.19 with subsidy), down from £154.27. Mr Goodall emphasised that the report was not a call to return to the blanket afforestation practices of 30 or 40 years ago. He said: “What it does demonstrate is that forestry is an even better economic opportunity in Scotland than we previously believed - and we would, therefore, encourage more hill farmers to consider the economic opportunity of diversifying their operations by planting trees on part of their land.” He added: "The report also provides compelling social and economic evidence to support the ambitions of the Scottish Government and the forestry sector to create a further 50,000 hectares of productive woodland in the decade to 2022." The report has been published immediately after a survey showed that the vast majority of people in Scotland support further substantial tree-planting. The Forestry Commission Scotland study last week revealed that 83 per cent of those surveyed want to see a lot more trees planted. Mr Goodall said: "Planting more trees can deliver for Scotland's environment, society and economy - and that includes offering a great opportunity to diversify for hard-pressed hill farmers. Confor is always happy to talk to farmers and their representatives about the potential range of benefits on offer." The statistics in the new report reflects a strong timber market, with prices for standing timber up by more than 20 per cent between 2012 and 2014. At the same time, sheep prices fell at a time of rising costs, while agricultural subsidy payments are expected to fall to 2019. The updated report was produced by the same author who wrote the initial study report for SAC Consulting, based on detailed statistical analysis and research in the Eskdalemuir area. The report says of the updated statistics: “Taken together, these changes [since the initial report] significantly improve the financial performance of forestry relative to farming in the Eskdalemuir area.” A summary of the updated report is available here. A recent article by Andrew Heald, Technical Adviser to Confor, illustrates how modern, multi-purpose forestry can deliver an enormous range of benefits for rural Scotland. Read it here.